Dad remembers me when I was this size--post baptism--and the rest is just a blank. By the way that is Dad, happy. (Note we're posing in the shade of an apricot tree with an orchard of them across the Los Altos, California street.)
Have you seen the movie Father of the Bride, the old one (1950) with Spencer Tracy as the father and Elizabeth Taylor as the bride? It is a story about the perfect American family, the one MGM executive Louis B. Mayer never had. The one most of us never had. That's probably why the movie is so attractive. If you were going to insert yourself into a movie--the way Woody Allen had Mia Farrow do in the Purple Rose of Cairo--you would definitely want to the join the Banks family in MGM-ville. The worst problem the Banks have is winnowing down the wedding reception invitation list so they can fit everyone they know and like into their lovely living room.
I say this as a prelude to a Father's Day confession. My father was always a distant father to me, until he began to lose his mind. In fact, the people in my family were always so distant from one another, in both triumph and disaster, that I decided our Chapman Family Motto must be: "Every Man For Himself."
Anyway, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, or so they say.
People who have not experienced this think you must be kidding. My friend Kathy, for example, is so incredibly well-adjusted and seems to have come from such a happy family that she has always fascinated me. Her parents loved her. They sent her to Stanford University. They gave her a big wedding. She's had a healthy marriage, a successful career, a loyal (not to mention rich) husband, and three intelligent, happy children. She never brags about this because she is too nice to brag. She's a kind friend.
I always wondered what planet she was from. Where is this planet anyway?
My Dad does love children, and when my sister and I were children we did have some fun together, though he had little enough time for fun of any kind. He worked long hours at the office. Then, he worked long hours at home to maintain the house and yard to the standards my mother set. He was in the Army Reserves. He worked after-hours to get his Masters Degree. At the dinner table, he said almost nothing.
Dad at his engineering office in San Francisco, probably about the year I was born, the last year he now remembers very clearly.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about his dementia now is that he talks so much! I believe he's talked more in the last year, than he did in all the other 88 years of his life combined.
And the things he remembers are so odd. He talks about my sister and I being born and then, poof, nothing. He doesn't remember our vacations together, though they were few enough and short enough as it was. He doesn't recall taking my sister to Chico State. He doesn't seem to remember how I excelled in high school and college. I don't think he knows anything about my career in television news, though even when that brought me accolades he didn't' say much about it.
His memory seems to be frozen at about the time he got out of the army from World War II and married my mother.
You might think he doesn't want to remember the rest. My friend Anne, who is a psychiatric social worker and facilitates a support group for Alzheimer's families, thinks dementia patients have some ability to look back to times they want to remember, or times they want to review and to ignore the rest. It is true that for most of my life my father wasn't emotionally present, or didn't seem to be.
But, we recently took him for a CAT scan to see what might be causing his dementia. The test showed that his brain is actually shrinking from some sort of neurodegenerative disease--many kinds of which strike people when they are old. Doctors don't really think it is possible for patients like my Dad to choose what they want to remember. But who really knows?
It doesn't appear that he can make any thoughtful choices now. Yet, I am still able to do so. And on this Father's Day, I just want to say that the reason my father and I are close now is that I decided we would be when he became ill.
It is the first time anyone in my family has ever needed me. I decided to come out to California and be a loving parent to him while he is ill. And it doesn't really matter whether I'm trying to be the kind of parent to him that I never had, or whether he was a present father, or whether he ever said anything at the dinner table, or whether, for whatever reason, he occasionally had a violent temper, or not. We only have him now for a very short time.
And I've chosen to love him. Because I can't think of anything else to do.
I carried this photo of my Dad--circa 1970--around in my wallet so long it has a big fold in the middle of it.